Capitalism: A Ghost Story

Is it a house or a home? A temple to the new India, or a warehouse for its ghosts? Ever since Antilla arrived on Altamount Road in Mumbai, exuding mystery and quiet menace, things have not been the same. “Here we are,” the friend who took me there said “Pay your respects to our new Ruler.”

Antilla belongs to India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani. I’d read about this most expensive dwelling ever built, the twenty-seven floors, three helipads, nine lifts, hanging gardens, ballrooms, weather rooms, gymnasiums, six floors of parking, and the six hundred servants. Nothing had prepared me for the vertical lawn—a soaring, 27 storey high, wall of grass attached to a vast metal grid. The grass was dry in patches; bits had fallen off in neat rectangles. Clearly, Trickledown hadn’t worked.

But Gush-Up certainly has. That’s why in a nation of 1.2 billion, India’s 100 richest people own assets equivalent to one-fourth of the GDP.

The word on the street (and in the New York Times) is, or at least was, that after all that effort and gardening, the Ambanis don’t live in Antilla. No one knows for sure. People still whisper about ghosts and bad luck, Vastu and Feng Shui. Maybe it’s all Karl Marx’s fault. (All that cussing.) Capitalism, he said, “has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, that it is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”

In India the 300 million of us who belong to the new, post-IMF “reforms” middle class—the market—live side by side with spirits of the nether world, the poltergeists of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains and denuded forests; the ghosts of 250,000 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves, and of the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us. And who survive on less than twenty rupees a day.

Mukesh Ambani is personally worth $20 billion. He holds a majority controlling share in Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) a company with a market capitalization of $ 47 billion and global business interests that include petrochemicals, oil, natural gas, polyester fibre, Special Economic Zones, fresh food retail, high schools, life sciences research and stem cell storage services. RIL recently bought 95% shares in Infotel, a TV consortium that controls 27 TV news and entertainment channels including CNN-IBN, IBN Live, CNBC, IBN Lokmat, and ETV in almost every regional language. Infotel owns the only nation-wide license for 4G Broadband, a high speed ‘information pipeline’ which, if the technology works, could be the future of information exchange. Mr. Ambani also owns a cricket team.

RIL is one of a handful of corporations that run India. Some of the others are the Tatas, Jindals, Vedanta, Mittals, Infosys, Essar and the other Reliance (ADAG), owned by Mukesh’s brother Anil. Their race for growth has spilled across Europe, Central Asia, Africa and Latin America. Their nets are cast wide; they are visible and invisible, over-ground as well as underground. The Tatas for example, run more than 100 companies in 80 countries. They are one of India’s oldest and largest private sector power companies. They own mines, gas fields, steel plants, telephone, cable TV and broadband networks, and run whole townships. They manufacture cars and trucks, own the Taj Hotel chain, Jaguar, Land Rover, Daewoo, Tetley Tea, a publishing company, a chain of bookstores, a major brand of iodized salt and the cosmetics giant Lakme. Their advertising tagline could easily be: You Can’t Live without Us.

According to the rules of the Gush-Up Gospel, the more you have, the more you can have.

The era of the Privatization of Everything has made the Indian economy one of the fastest growing in the world. However, like any good old-fashioned colony, one of its main exports is its minerals. India’s new mega-corporations Tatas, Jindals, Essar, Reliance, Sterlite, are those who have managed to muscle their way to the head of the spigot that is spewing money extracted from deep inside the earth. It’s a dream come true for businessmen—to be able to sell what they don’t have to buy.

The other major source of corporate wealth comes from their land-banks. All over the world, weak, corrupt, local governments have helped Wall Street brokers, agro-business corporations and Chinese billionaires to amass huge tracts of land. (Of course this entails commandeering water too.) In India the land of millions of people is being acquired and made over to private corporations for ‘public interest’— for Special Economic Zones, infrastructure projects, dams, highways, car manufacture, chemical hubs and Formula One racing. (The sanctity of private property never applies to the poor.) As always, local people are promised that their displacement from their land and the expropriation of everything they ever had, is actually part of employment-generation. But by now, we know that the connection between GDP growth and jobs is a myth. After twenty years of ‘growth’, 60% of India’s workforce is self-employed, 90% of India’s labor force works in the unorganized sector.

Post Independence, right up to the 1980s, Peoples’ Movements, ranging from the Naxalites to Jayaprakash Narayan’s Sampoorna Kranti, were fighting for land-reforms, for the redistribution of land from feudal landlords to landless peasants. Today any talk of re-distribution of land or wealth, would be considered not just undemocratic, but lunatic. Even the most militant movements have been reduced to a fight to hold onto what little land people still  have. The millions of landless people, the majority of them Dalits and Adivasis, driven from their villages, living in slums and shanty colonies in small towns and mega cities do not figure even in the radical discourse.

As Gush-Up concentrates wealth onto the tip of a shining pin on which our billionaires pirouette, tidal waves of money crash through the institutions of democracy—the courts, the parliament as well as the media, seriously compromising their ability to function in the ways they are meant to. The noisier the carnival around elections, the less sure we are that democracy really exists.

Each new corruption scandal that surfaces in India, makes the last one look tame. In the summer of 2011 the 2G spectrum scandal broke. We learnt that corporations had siphoned away $40 billion of public money by installing a friendly soul as the Minister of Communications & Information who grossly underpriced the licenses for 2G telecom spectrum and illegally auctioned it to his buddies. The taped telephone conversations leaked to the press showed how a network of industrialists and their front companies, ministers, senior journalists, and a TV anchor were involved in facilitating this daylight robbery. The tapes were just an MRI that confirmed a diagnosis that people had made long ago.

The privatization and illegal sale of telecom spectrum does not involve war, displacement and ecological devastation. The privatization of India’s mountains, rivers and forests does. Perhaps because it does not have the uncomplicated clarity of a straightforward, out and out accounting scandal, or perhaps because it is all being done in the name of India’s ‘progress’ it does not have the same resonance with the middle classes.

In 2005 the State Governments of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand signed hundreds of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with a number of private corporations turning over trillions of dollars of bauxite, iron-ore, and other minerals for a pittance, defying even the warped logic of the Free Market. (Royalties to the government ranged between 0.5% and 7%.)

Only days after the Chhattisgarh Government signed an MOU for the construction of an integrated steel plant in Bastar with Tata Steel, the Salwa Judum, a vigilante militia was inaugurated. The Government said it was a spontaneous uprising of local people who were fed up of the ‘repression’ by Maoist guerillas in the forest. It turned out to be a ground clearing operation, funded and armed by the government and subsidized by mining corporations. In the other States similar militias were created, with other names. The Prime Minister announced the Maoists were the ‘Single Largest Security Challenge in India.’ It was a declaration of war.

On the 2nd of January 2006, in Kalinganagar, in the neighboring state of Orissa, perhaps to signal the seriousness of the government’s intention, ten platoons of police arrived at the site of another Tata Steel plant and opened fire on villagers who had gathered there to protest what they felt was inadequate compensation for their land. Thirteen people including one policeman were killed and 37 injured. Six years have gone by and though the villages remain under siege by armed policemen the protest has not died.

Meanwhile in Chhattisgarh, the Salwa Judum burned, raped and murdered its way through hundreds of forest villages, evacuating 600 villages and forcing 50,000 people to come out into police camps and 350,000 people to flee. The Chief Minister announced that those who did not come out of the forests would be considered to be “Maoist terrorists.” In this way, in parts of modern India, plowing fields and sowing seed came to be defined as terrorist activity. Eventually the Salwa Judum’s atrocities only succeeded in strengthening the resistance and swelling the ranks of the Maoist guerilla army. In 2009 the Government announced what it called Operation Green Hunt. 200,000 paramilitary troops were deployed across Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal.

After three years of ‘low intensity conflict’ that has not managed to ‘flush’ the rebels out of the forest, the Central Government has declared that it will deploy the Indian army and air force. In India we don’t call this war. We call it ‘Creating a Good investment Climate.’ Thousands of soldiers have already moved in. A Brigade headquarters and Airbases are being readied. One of the biggest armies in the world is now preparing its Terms of Engagement to “defend” itself against the poorest, hungriest, most malnourished people in the world. We only await the declaration of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which will give the army legal impunity and the right to kill ‘on suspicion’. Going by the tens of thousands of unmarked graves and anonymous cremation pyres in Kashmir, Manipur and Nagaland, it has shown itself to be a very suspicious army indeed.

While the preparations for deployment are being made, the jungles of Central India continue to remain under siege, with villagers frightened to come out, or go to the market for food or medicine. Hundreds of people have been jailed, charged for being Maoists under draconian, undemocratic laws. Prisons are crowded with Adivasi people, many of who have no idea what their crime is. Recently, Soni Sori, an Adivasi school teacher from Bastar was arrested and tortured in police custody. Stones were pushed up her vagina to get her to ‘confess’ that she was a Maoist courier. The stones were removed from her body at a hospital in Calcutta, where, after a public outcry, she was sent for a medical check up. At a recent Supreme Court hearing, activists presented the judges with the stones in a plastic bag. The only outcome of their efforts has been that Soni Sori remains in jail while Ankit Garg, the Superintendent of Police who conducted the interrogation was conferred with the President’s Police Medal for Gallantry on Republic Day.

We hear about the ecological and social re-engineering of Central India only because of the mass insurrection and the war. The Government gives out no information. The Memorandums of Understanding are all secret. Some sections of the media have done what they could to bring public attention to what is happening in Central India. However, most of the Indian mass media is made vulnerable by the fact that the major share of its revenues come from corporate advertisements. If that is not bad enough, now the line between the media and big business has begun to blur dangerously. As we have seen, RIL virtually owns 27 TV channels. But the reverse is also true. Some media houses now have direct business and corporate interests. For example, one of the major daily newspapers in the region Dainik Bhaskar, and it is only one example, has 17.5 million readers in 4 languages including English and Hindi, across 13 states. It also owns 69 companies with interests in mining, power generation, real estate and textiles. A recent writ petition filed in the Chhattisgarh High Court accuses DB Power Ltd (one of the group’s companies) of using “deliberate, illegal and manipulative measures” through company owned newspapers to influence the outcome of a public hearing over an open cast coal-mine. Whether or not it has attempted to influence the outcome is not germane. The point is that media houses are in a position to do so. They have the power to do so. The laws of the land allow them to be in a position that lends itself to a serious conflict of interest.

There are other parts of the country from which no news comes. In the sparsely populated, but militarized northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, 168 big dams are being constructed, most of them privately owned. High dams that will submerge whole districts are being constructed in Manipur and Kashmir, both highly militarized states where people can be killed merely for protesting power cuts. (That happened a few weeks ago in Kashmir.) How can they stop a dam?

The most delusional dam of all is the Kalpasar in Gujarat. It is being planned as a 34 km long dam across the Gulf of Khambat with a ten-lane highway and a railway line running on top of it. By keeping the sea water out, the idea is to create a sweet water reservoir of Gujarat’s rivers. (Never mind that these rivers have already been dammed to a trickle and poisoned with chemical effluent.) The Kalpasar dam, which would raise the sea level and alter the ecology of hundreds of kilometers of coast-line, had been dismissed as an bad idea ten years ago. It has made a sudden comeback in order to supply water to the Dholera Special Investment Region (SIR) in one of the most water-stressed zones not just in India, but in the world. SIR is another name for an SEZ, a self-governed corporate dystopia of “industrial parks, town-ships and mega-cities”. The Dholera Special Investment Region is going to be connected to Gujarat’s other cities by a network of ten-lane highways. Where will the money for all this come from?

In January 2011 in the Mahatma (Gandhi) Mandir, Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi, presided over a meeting of 10,000 international businessmen from 100 countries. According to media reports, they pledged to invest $450 billion in Gujarat. The meeting was deliberately scheduled to take place on the tenth anniversary of the massacre of 2000 Muslims in February 2002. Modi stands accused of not just condoning, but actively abetting the killing. People who watched their loved ones being raped, eviscerated and burned alive, the tens of thousands who were driven from their homes, still wait for a gesture towards justice. But Modi has traded in his saffron scarf and vermillion forehead for a sharp business suit, and hopes that a $450 billion dollar investment will work as blood money, and square the books. Perhaps it will. Big Business is backing him enthusiastically. The algebra of infinite justice works in mysterious ways.

The Dholera SIR is only one of the smaller Matryoshka dolls, one of the inner ones in the dystopia that is being planned. It will be connected to the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), a 1500 km long and 300 km wide industrial corridor, with nine Mega-industrial zones, a high speed freight line, three sea-ports, and six air ports; a six-lane intersection-free expressway and a 4000 MW power plant. The DMIC is a collaborative venture between the Governments of India and Japan, and their respective corporate partners, and has been proposed by the McKinsey Global Institute.

The DMIC web site says that approximately 180 million people will be “affected” by the project. Exactly how, it doesn’t say. It envisages the building of several new cities and estimates that the population in the region will grow from the current 231 million to 314 million by 2019. That’s in seven years’ time. When was the last time a State, despot or dictator carried out a population transfer of millions of people? Can it possibly be a peaceful process?

The Indian Army might need to go on a recruitment drive so that it’s not taken unawares when it is ordered to deploy all over India. In preparation for its role in Central India it publicly released its updated doctrine on Military Psychological Operations, which outlines “a planned process of conveying a message to a select target audience, to promote particular themes that result in desired attitudes and behaviour, which affect the achievement of political and military objectives of the country”. This process of ‘perception management’ it said, would be conducted by “using media available to the Services.”

The Army is experienced enough to know that coercive force alone cannot carry out or manage social engineering on the scale that is envisaged by India’s planners. War against the poor is one thing. But for the rest of us—the middle-class, white collar workers, intellectuals, ‘opinion makers’—it has to be ‘perception management’. And for this we must turn our attention to the exquisite art of Corporate Philanthropy.

Of late, the main mining conglomerates have embraced the Arts—film, art installations and the rush of literary festivals that have replaced the 1990s obsession with beauty contests. Vedanta, currently mining the heart out of the homelands of the ancient Dongria Kond tribe for bauxite, is sponsoring a ‘Creating Happiness’ film competition for young film students who they have commissioned to make films on sustainable development. Vedanta’s tagline is ‘Mining Happiness.’ The Jindal Group brings out a contemporary art magazine and supports some of India’s major artists (who naturally work with stainless steel). Essar was the principal sponsor of the Tehelka Newsweek Think Fest that promised ‘high octane debates’ by the foremost thinkers from around the world, which included major writers, activists and even the architect Frank Gehry. (All this in Goa while activists and journalists were uncovering massive illegal mining scandals that involved Essar.) Tata Steel and Rio Tinto (which has a sordid track record of its own) were among the chief sponsors of the Jaipur Literary Festival (Latin name: Darshan Singh Construction Jaipur Literary Festival) that is advertised by the cognoscenti as ‘The Greatest Literary Show on Earth’. Counselage, the Tatas ‘strategic brand manager’ sponsored the Festival’s press tent. Many of the world’s best and brightest writers gathered in Jaipur to discuss love, literature, politics and Sufi poetry. Some tried to defend Salman Rushdie’s right to free speech by reading from his proscribed book, The Satanic Verses. In every TV frame and newspaper photograph the logo of Tata Steel (and its tagline; Values Stronger than Steel) loomed behind them, a benign, benevolent host. The enemies of Free Speech were the supposedly murderous Muslim mobs, who, the festival organizers told us, could have even harmed the school children gathered there. (We are witness to how helpless the Indian government and the police can be when it comes to Muslims.) Yes, the hardline Darul-uloom Deobandi Islamic seminary did protest Rushdie being invited to the festival. Yes, some Islamists did gather at the festival venue to protest and yes, outrageously, the State Government did nothing to protect the venue. That’s because the whole episode had as much to do with democracy, vote-banks and the UP elections as it did with Islamist fundamentalism. But the battle for Free Speech against Islamist Fundamentalism made it to the world’s newspapers. It is important that it did. But there were hardly any reports about the Festival sponsors’ role in the war in the forests, the bodies piling up, the prisons filling up. Or about the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, which make even thinking an anti-government thought a cognizable offense. Or about the mandatory public hearing for the Tata Steel plant in Lohandiguda which local people complained actually took place hundreds of miles away in Jagdalpur, in the collector’s office compound, with a hired audience of fifty people, under armed guard. Where was Free Speech then? No one mentioned Kalinganagar. No one mentioned that journalists, academics and filmmakers working on subjects unpopular with the Indian Government—like the surreptitious part it played in the genocide of Tamils in the war in Sri Lanka, or the recently discovered unmarked graves in Kashmir—were being denied visas or deported straight from the airport.

But which of us sinners was going to cast the first stone? Not me, who lives off royalties from corporate publishing houses. We all watch Tata Sky, we surf the net with Tata Photon, we ride in Tata taxis, we stay in Tata Hotels, sip our Tata tea in Tata bone china and stir it with teaspoons made of Tata Steel. We buy Tata books in Tata bookshops. Hum Tata ka namak khatey hain. We’re under siege.

If the sledge-hammer of moral purity is to be the criteria for stone-throwing, then the only people who qualify are those who have been silenced already. Those who live outside the system; the outlaws in the forests or those whose protests are never covered by the press, or the well-behaved Dispossessed, who go from tribunal to tribunal, bearing witness, giving testimony.

But the Litfest gave us our Aha! Moment. Oprah came. She said she loved India, that she would come again and again. It made us proud.

This is only the burlesque end of the Exquisite Art.

Though the Tatas have been involved with corporate philanthropy for almost a hundred years now, endowing scholarships and running some excellent educational institutes and hospitals, Indian corporations have only recently been invited into the Star Chamber, the Camera stellata, the brightly lit world of global corporate government, deadly for its adversaries, but otherwise so artful that you barely know its there.

What follows in this essay, might appear to some to be a somewhat harsh critique. On the other hand, in the tradition of honoring one’s adversaries, it could be read as an acknowledgement of the vision, flexibility, the sophistication and unwavering determination of those who have dedicated their lives to keep the world safe for capitalism.

Their enthralling history, which has faded from contemporary memory, began in the US in the early 20th century when, kitted out legally in the form of endowed Foundations, corporate philanthropy began to replace missionary activity as Capitalism’s (and Imperialism’s) road opening and systems maintenance patrol.

Among the first Foundations to be set up in the United States were the Carnegie Corporation, endowed in 1911 by profits from the Carnegie Steel Company, and the Rockefeller Foundation, endowed in 1914 by J.D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil Company. The Tatas and Ambanis of their time.

Some of the institutions financed, given seed money, or supported by the Rockefeller Foundation are the UN, the CIA, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), New York’s most fabulous Museum of Modern Art, and, of course the Rockefeller Center in New York (where Diego Riviera’s mural had to be blasted off the wall because it mischievously depicted reprobate capitalists and a valiant Lenin. Free Speech had taken the day off.)

J.D. Rockefeller was America’s first billionaire and the world’s richest man. He was an abolitionist, a supporter of Abraham Lincoln and a teetotaler. He believed his money was given to him by God, which must have been nice for him.

Here are a few verses from one of Pablo Neruda’s early poems called Standard Oil Company:

Their obese emperors from New York
are suave smiling assassins
who buy silk, nylon, cigars
petty tyrants and dictators.

They buy countries, people, seas, police, county councils,
distant regions where the poor hoard their corn
like misers their gold:
Standard Oil awakens them,
clothes them in uniforms, designates
which brother is the enemy.
the Paraguayan fights its war,
and the Bolivian wastes away
in the jungle with its machine gun.

A President assassinated for a drop of petroleum,
a million-acre mortgage,
a swift execution on a morning mortal with light, petrified,
a new prison camp for subversives,
in Patagonia, a betrayal, scattered shots
beneath a petroliferous moon,
a subtle change of ministers
in the capital, a whisper
like an oil tide,
and zap, you’ll see
how Standard Oil’s letters shine above the clouds,
above the seas, in your home,
illuminating their dominions.

When corporate-endowed Foundations first made their appearance in the US, there was a fierce debate about their provenance, legality and lack of accountability. People suggested that if companies had so much surplus money, they should raise the wages of their workers. (People made these outrageous suggestions in those days, even in America.) The idea of these Foundations, so ordinary now, was in fact a leap of the business imagination. Non-tax paying legal entities with massive resources and an almost unlimited brief—wholly unaccountable, wholly non-transparent— what better way to parlay economic wealth into political, social and cultural capital, to turn money into power? What better way for usurers to use a miniscule percentage of their profits to run the world? How else would Bill Gates who admittedly knows a thing or two about computers, find himself designing education, health and agriculture policies, not just for the US government, but for governments all over the world?

Over the years, as people witnessed some of the genuinely good work the Foundations did (running public libraries, eradicating diseases)—the direct connection between corporations and the Foundations they endowed began to blur. Eventually, it faded altogether. Now even those who consider themselves left wing are not shy to accept their largesse.

By the 1920’s US capitalism had begun to look outwards, for raw materials and overseas markets. Foundations began to formulate the idea of global corporate governance. In 1924 the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations jointly created what is today the most powerful Foreign Policy pressure group in the world— the Council on Foreign Relations, which later came to be funded by the Ford Foundation as well. By 1947 the newly created CIA was supported by and working closely with the CFR. Over the years the CFR’s membership has included 22 US Secretaries of State. There were five CFR members in the 1943 steering committee that planned the UN, and an $8.5 million grant from J.D. Rockefeller bought the land on which the UN’s New York headquarters stands.

All eleven of the World Bank’s Presidents since 1946—men who have presented themselves as missionaries of the poor—have been members of the CFR. (The exception was George Woods. And he was a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation and Vice-president of Chase-Manhattan Bank.)

At Bretton Woods, the World Bank and IMF decided that the US dollar should be the reserve currency of the world, and that in order to enhance the penetration of global capital it would be necessary to universalize and standardize business practices in an open market place. It is towards that end that they spend a large amount of money promoting Good Governance (as long as they control the strings), the concept of the Rule of Law (provided they have a say in making the laws) and hundreds of anti-corruption programs (to stream-line the system they have put in place.) Two of the most opaque, unaccountable organizations in the world, go about demanding transparency and accountability from the Governments of poorer countries.

Given that the World Bank has more or less directed the economic policies of the Third World, coercing and cracking open the markets of country after country for global finance, you could say that corporate philanthropy has turned out to be the most visionary business of all time.

Corporate-endowed Foundations administer, trade and channelize their power and place their chessmen on the chessboard, through a system of elite clubs and think tanks, whose members overlap and move in and out through the revolving doors. Contrary to the various conspiracy theories in circulation, particularly among left-wing groups, there is nothing secret, satanic, or Free Mason-like about this arrangement.  It is not very different from the way Corporations use shell companies and off-shore accounts to transfer and administer their money—except that the currency is power, not money.

The transnational equivalent of the CFR is the Trilateral Commission, set up in 1973 by David Rockefeller, the former US National Security Adviser Zibignew Brzezinski (Founder-member of the Afghan Mujahidin, forefathers of the Taliban), the Chase Manhattan Bank and some other private eminences. Its purpose was to create an enduring bond of friendship and co-operation between the elites of North America, Europe and Japan. It has now become a penta-lateral commission, because it includes members from China and India. (Tarun Das of the CII, N. R. Narayana Murthy ex CEO Infosys, Jamsheyd N. Godrej, Managing Director of Godrej, Jamshed J. Irani, Director Tata Sons and Gautam Thapar, CEO Avantha Group.

The Aspen Institute, is an international club of local elites, businessmen, bureaucrats, politicians, with franchises in several countries. Tarun Das is the President of the Aspen Institute, India. Gautam Thapar is Chairman. Several senior officers of the McKinsey Global Institute (proposer of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor) are members of the CFR, the Trilateral Commission and the Aspen Institute.

The Ford Foundation (liberal foil to the more conservative Rockefeller Foundation, though the two work together constantly) was set up in 1936. Though it is